Jewish advocates slam board over Mount Zion demise

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When the eulogy for the UCSF/Mount Zion Medical Center is read — perhaps before the end of the year — there won't be many warm words for the executive board that failed to keep the institution alive as a full-service hospital.

A fixture in the Jewish community for more than 110 years, the hospital has been run since 1990 by a group lacking vision, planning skills and leadership, doctors and other medical officials said this week.

Dr. Robert T. Mendle, the medical director of the hospital's skilled nursing unit, said he couldn't get anyone on the merged-facility's board of directors to discuss his department, which he said is targeted for cutbacks.

"I solicited the decision-makers to at least talk to me about shutting it down, and those arrogant SOBs never even responded to me," Mendle said of the UCSF-Stanford Health Care board, which has run the hospital since 1997.

"People throughout Mount Zion feel that this attitude has been pervasive, and that our hospital could have thrived," he added. "Without a doubt, our demise was largely because the administration didn't give us the time of day for the last seven or eight years."

The UCSF-Stanford Health Care board announced its intentions last week to severely scale down Mount Zion– which serves many Russian emigres and African-Americans who live nearby — by shutting the San Francisco hospital's emergency room and in-patient beds, possibly as soon as December.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and other politicians are jumping in to try and save the 112-year-old institution. Brown said last Friday that he'd like the city to buy the UCSF/Mount Zion hospital for $1 and incorporate it into the city's public health-care system.

Ann Lazarus, the chief executive officer of the Mount Zion Health Fund, which used to run the hospital, said it should have never come to this. She said the aggressive efforts of her board — including creative proposals to keep the hospital afloat — largely fell on deaf ears.

"There has not been a consistently identified leadership and vision for the Mount Zion campus," Lazarus said.

In July, the Mount Zion Health Fund pledged $5 million to help keep the facility fully operational while studying potential solutions. But the offer wasn't accepted.

"We made the offer in conjunction with the hospital staying open [until 2001]," Lazarus said. "Clearly they rejected that option."

Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the president of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, said that even though Mount Zion is a money-losing operation, "that doesn't mean it's not fixable. But it would require some real genius to fix it."

Lazarus said Monday a last-ditch effort to save the financially ailing hospital has not been organized, and perhaps never will be.

Then again, "anything is possible," she added. "Maybe we can get some type of temporary restraining order, but I don't know how that would work."

The 24-member Mount Zion Health Fund board has its next meeting planned for Wednesday, Oct. 13, although some feel that little can be done to preserve Mount Zion.

"It's a done deal," said Mendle, a member of that board. "Once something like this happens, you can't do anything to revive it. Too much has already happened. Fatalism has already set in."

With staff and volunteers beginning to leave, it's going to be difficult to keep an emergency department open for much longer, Lazarus said.

Brown and other politicians, including San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who led what Lazarus called "a union rally" on the steps of City Hall on Monday afternoon, are trying to find ways to keep Mount Zion alive.

Mendle dismissed Brown's offer as malarkey but added, "If they take it over, they better change the name, that's all I've got to say…Doctors are angry and depressed that we won't have a Jewish community hospital any more."

UCSF-Stanford isn't planning to close Mount Zion entirely. It reportedly wants to open an urgent care center for cases less serious than emergencies, and to keep open its outpatient clinics and cancer center.

Essentially, it wants to convert the hospital, located on Divisadero Street a few blocks from Japantown, to a daytime medical clinic rather than housing between 50 to 80 patients per night in acute-care wards. It would continue to serve many Jews and African-Americans who live nearby.

"One of the issues right now is that I don't have a completely clear picture of what their vision for the hospital is," Lazarus said. "Until we've had a chance to sit down with UCSF-Stanford and hear that spelled out, I don't know what our position is going to be."

A decade ago, the financially struggling Jewish hospital was saved from potential demise when it was taken over by UCSF. Two years ago, amidst much controversy, there was a merger of hospitals affiliated with UCSF and Stanford University.

The resulting UCSF-Stanford system reportedly lost $86 million for the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, with about $60 million blamed on Mount Zion.

The changes at Mount Zion are expected to save UCSF-Stanford $15 million to $20 million a year.

"I wasn't totally surprised but I was extremely disappointed," said Dr. Lawrence Feigenbaum, the Mount Zion director of ambulatory services from 1971 to 1978 and director of professional services and education from 1978 to 1990.

"I had hoped something could be worked out so that this wouldn't happen. Mount Zion has been so important to the community."

Few in the Jewish community would argue with that statement. Although the hospital no longer caters mainly to Jewish patients, hundreds of Russian Jewish emigres are treated there. Moreover, thousands of Jews have been born or treated at Mount Zion (or both) since it was formed in 1887 by a group of 43 Jewish citizens.

"It's a tremendous loss to the Jewish community and the community that lives in the Western Addition," Pearce said. "People are very disturbed by the prospect that their hospital will no longer be available to them."

In addition to leaving the West with only one historically Jewish hospital, Cedar Sinai in Los Angeles, the demise of Mount Zion could present some logistical problems as well, Pearce said.

"There is the potential for life being lost for people who now have to travel much farther to emergency rooms and emergency room beds," he said.

Mount Zion patients who need emergency care or extended-stay care are probably going to be sent the UCSF hospital on Parnassus Avenue, in the Inner Sunset District. Mount Zion is conveniently located for the many Russian emigres who live in the Richmond District.

It's still not known which services will remain at Mount Zion and which will now longer be available.

"It's important that specialized needs of the various groups who have traditionally received care at Mount Zion continue to be met," said Gia Daniller, director of government relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"The nurses that speak Russian, the interpreters — those are the things I hope the UCSF folks will carefully consider and make sure there isn't a decline in the quality of care. It's important to find ways to meet the needs of the community."

Dr. Robert Rushakoff, who runs the diabetic center at UCSF/Mount Zion — in an office just down the hall from the room in which he was born — said patients don't need to worry.

"Arrangements will be made to make sure no one gets lost," he said. "Health care has shifted to out-patient medicine in overwhelming ways in recent years. Fewer and fewer people are being admitted to the hospital [for overnight stays]. This is just pushing that trend."

Rushakoff is part of a long-time Mount Zion family. His late father, Oscar, was a doctor at Mount Zion for 50 years, and his mother, Nadine, was once a member of Mount Zion's board of directors and ladies' auxiliary board.

"It's very sad to see this happening," Nadine Rushakoff said. "We were hoping for some last-minute solution but these days, the practice of medicine is so different than it was in the past. You have to move with the times."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.